The best sports movies are never about the sports themselves, but the characters involved in them. It worked for Hoosiers, it worked for Rocky, and it works in the modern day for The Fighter.
This is a casting powerhouse, Mark Wahlberg and Christain Bale in full control as two brothers, Micky Ward (no “e”) and Dicky Eklund respectively. The latter is a washed out, crack-addicted technical boxer now under the power of addiction, the former given one last chance as he moves into his 30s. Dynamically, they’re a broken home, yet have such a strong family bond, they can never be separated.
Maybe it was fate that Bale and Melissa Leo (playing the mother wrapped up in all of this) earned best supporting actor nods at the Oscars, both characters essential to Ward’s ride to the top of the boxing elite. The family problems are to the point of tiring, Leo’s character in full denial of any drug addiction within her family’s ranks, infuriating as she fails to see anything past her oldest son. Ward feels almost forgotten, forced to break his bonds, trainers and promoters both believing the home is holding him back.
Fighting is the only connecting point between them all though, the sole piece of the metaphorical puzzle holding them together. Mom is paranoid that if Ward treks out on his own, he will be conned, ripped off, or even taken advantage of. There’s a full slate of metal blockages within those walls, Ward’s first chance to break free coming at the hands of a college dropout bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams).
Getting into the ring, director David O. Russell keeps the matches appropriate to the era, ditching the film stock for either actual tape or digitally manipulated frames made to look as such. The effect does nothing but add authenticity, fighting presented not as an out-and-out brawl, but a tactical struggle between two pugilists. This is Hollywood though, punches landing with incredible ferocity, each knockdown felt by Ward and the viewer.
Russell is also keen never to dampen the illusion. The Fighter is a major studio production, the available funds used to create a world that is downtrodden, and the camera work messy. This is all created with the help of outrageously talented hands, the cast simply completing the realistic slate. More importantly, The Fighter feels new, fresh, and lively, not a clone or something trying to fill the void after the Rocky series finally ran out of gas. Montages are inspiring, and the flare ups that follow mark the pinnacle of Hollywood drama.
As mentioned above, the actual fights in the film are done with traditional tape appropriate to the era. This introduces a mountain of applicable artifacts, from edge enhancement to interlacing. There is nothing wrong with the AVC encode from Paramount in this regard. It does what it’s supposed to in presenting the material transparently.
Everything else was captured on a fine-grained film stock, the natural layer of grain resolved nearly without fault. For whatever reason, a few scenes near Charlene’s home spike, resulting in an obvious level of noise. Those are the only moments of depreciation with regards to the stock itself.
The Fighter is not astoundingly detailed, although faces never appear smooth or unnaturally glossy either. Images appear naturally, sharp, crisp, and defined. Close-ups nearly always represent what hi-def can do best, a number of them bringing out every pore, hair, and cut post-fight. Sharpness is consistent too, no soft focus or lighting noted.
Flesh tones veer warmly, scenes inside the bar early some of the worst offenders of the overused orange saturation. Otherwise, color remains natural, any attempt to elevate the rich, deep hues only notable because of the bronzed skin on display. Black levels carry the same consistency, keeping outstanding depth a part of the frame throughout, the stable, normalized contrast aiding.
The Fighter is an unassuming audio mix, delivering the expectation of crowded arenas and exaggerated punches, and then going beyond. This is actually a spectacular bit of audio design, capturing the nuances of the multiple environments with care.
Training sessions inside the gym all carry a vivid echo, believable for the spacious walls, while the same effect inside a prison carries a weightier quality. Nothing sounds forced or artificial. The streets come alive with sirens, and the bar is filled with increasingly loud music, chatter amongst the patrons, and it’s all balanced so key dialogue remains the focus. Stereos maintain their presence as well, Dicky jumping from a second story window into a dumpster in an escape attempt, the rustling of the bags tracking side-to-side as the camera pans.
Bass is provided not only by the vividly rendered soundtrack and score, but those key dramatic rumbles too. There’s a brilliantly powerful cue at 1:45:25 to heighten tension, bass extraordinarily clear as it emphasizes trouble for Ward in the ring. The punches, of course, have weight behind them as well, each landing with a powerhouse jolt, the knockdown punches exaggerated perfection.
Director David O. Russell provides a solo commentary over the film and optionally over 16 deleted scenes. The Warriors Code is a half-hour making-of, congratulatory all around while still providing necessary insight into the project. Keeping the Faith is an eight minute piece that chronicles the family, from ex-husbands to uncles to sisters. Paramount also includes the trailer.